Carlotta: The Legend of Les Girls
Infamous showgirl, Sydney icon and LGBT trailblazer – the story of Carlotta is finally being told in a new film. Ahead of its premiere on ABC1, the legendary performer speaks with Cec Busby.
For more than fifty years, Carol ‘Carlotta’ Spencer, has been entertaining audiences in Australia and around the globe. An original performer at the legendary Kings Cross venue, Les Girls – a venue dedicated to glamorous drag shows and the first of its kind in Australia – Carlotta has been dazzling audiences since the swinging ’60s.
But life has not always been easy for the entertainer. Born Richard Byron but identifying as female from a very young age, Carol’s early years were fraught with unhappiness as she struggled to make her identity known in a time when being different got you ostracised. Her mother initially abandoned her to be raised by friends, returning several years later with a boyfriend whose idea of discipline was to administer beatings with a belt. A job at David Jones in the scenic department allowed the teenager some respite and freedom. And it was there, whilst working in fashion, that Carol nurtures the courage to express herself, and begins dressing in women’s clothes. Carol was finally born.
Not long after, she meets a man called Lee Gordon and begins working as a showgirl in Kings Cross. During this time, Gordon takes a trip to Paris where he discovers a revue featuring an all-male cross-dressing cast. He decides to bring the concept back to Australia and launches Les Girls.
Carol auditions for the show and wins a spot and is reborn as Les Girls’ Carlotta – the most beautiful showgirl in the Les Girls’ stable.
Image: Carlotta and Les Girls
In the 52 years since, Carol has performed thousands of shows as Carlotta and along the way earned her place as one of Sydney’s best loved entertainers.
“I’m like ‘The Mummy’ – I’ve been around since the sphinx,” Carlotta says.
“I said to someone earlier, ‘If you think old, you’ll get old’, so I put a lot of hairspray on the mirror, and if you don’t touch me up in a photo, you’re dead.”
It’s this self-deprecating humour that has become something of a trademark, with the star more likely to turn her wit upon herself than an unsuspecting audience member. “You have to strike first, I learned that pretty early on. And you have to have a good laugh. Sometimes that laugh is at yourself.”
And just as Carlotta has changed, so has her audiences, she says. What were once ‘yahoos’ coming to have a look, have now evolved into shows at leagues clubs or camp nights at venues such as the Imperial Hotel. Carlotta, it seems, has never slowed down.
Indeed, she’s been performing flat-out since the beginning of the year and will finally take a well deserved break in the coming week. Just in time to settle back in front of the TV to watch a new television movie about her.
Premiering on Thursday, June 19, on ABC1, the film entitled Carlotta features a star-studded cast including Anita Heigh, Alex Demetriades, Eamon Farren, Caroline O’Connor, Genevieve Lemon and Paul Capsis. In the title role is Jessica Marais, star of Packed to the Rafters and Love Child.
Carlotta admits it’s “very flattering” to see her life story played out on screen. “It’s been a long time in the making and Jess is fabulous in it, she even got the voice right,” Carlotta says.
“I’m thrilled with the end result. But it is hard to watch because it’s full of too many memories – good and bad.”
Image: Carlotta and Jessica Marais
Of course, it’s not the first time Carlotta – herself or otherwise – has graced the screen. Her first appearance on television was on the groundbreaking drama series Number 96.
“My character was a showgirl,” Carlotta recalls. “I wasn’t as well known in those days and they didn’t tell the public what I was. And then they revealed it at the end – ‘Oh Miss Ross, I mean, Mr Ross’. I was so excited because it was my first TV show.”
Today, such a role would be considered transphobic, but at the time it was cutting edge television. Indeed Carlotta has little time for anyone that cries ‘poor me’.
“I was a Balmain boy,” Carlotta says. “And what was it Neville Wran said? ‘Balmain boys don’t cry’. So I learned from an early age to be tough.
“Today I think [people] don’t realise how lucky they are. How they have so much freedom. They’re not being chased down the street by cops. These days they don’t have a clue what we went through. They don’t know how many people worked hard behind the scenes to give them the freedom they have got today.”
Nonetheless Carlotta has this advice for any gender-questioning person. “Go for it – and remember life is too short and it’s better to be happy than miserable.”
She also says the most important thing is acceptance. “Acceptance of who you are. I fought for it for a long time and I’ve finally got it”.
GALLERY: Carlotta ... Then and now.
And while Carlotta’s had her share of challenges, there have been some wonderful highs too.
“I’d say the Closing Ceremony of the 2000 Sydney Olympics is a career highlight,” she recalls. “Only I ended up in between the Bananas in Pyjamas. There was myself and Elle MacPherson and Penny Clifford and Olivia Newton-John and the Bananas. I said, ‘Whatever you do, don’t put me near them or you’ll have Fred Nile going off about me’. He used to call me the Queen of Sodom and Gomorrah.”
A cutting comment for some but for Carlotta, barbs like that just roll off her back these days. “I’m getting in my twilight years now, so I’m not going to let anyone bring me down.”
IN CARLOTTA’S WORDS
On Jess Marais
When she dresses as me as a teenager – I said ‘If I looked like that I never would have had the change’.
On her sex change
I was keeping that private – but some little orderly at the hospital rang the press. He probably got paid $50 to sell me out.
On the critics
You’ll get the critics that say ‘why did you get a woman to play me” and I say well find me a pretty boy that could do it!
On her favourite number
My favourite number is ‘Lady is a Tramp’. I used to do it when I was younger but I didn’t do it justice. I have the voice for it now.
On the Carlotta movie
I was a bit hesitant at first – then I thought why not, at least I’ll leave something behind and at least I’ll get to show people not to be afraid of being who they are.
Carlotta premieres on ABC 1 on Thursday, June 19, at 8:30pm and will be available on DVD from July 2.
VIDEO: Carlotta trailer